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The controversial debate on the role of water reservoirs in reducing water scarcity

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Abstract Reservoirs are built worldwide for a higher water supply in dry periods by storing water temporarily in wet periods. Recent socio‐hydrology studies hypothesized, by creating “supply–demand cycles”, that reservoirs can lead indirectly to counterintuitive dynamics such as more water scarcity and a higher economic and social vulnerability. This opinion argues that reservoirs are part of co‐evolutionary processes with natural, social, and engineered elements and therefore, water scarcity need to be analyzed within socio‐political interactions. Aspects such as (a) institutions; (b) governance processes; (c) social–ecological factors; (d) narratives of water scarcity; and (e) powerful economic interests are essential to understand feedback mechanisms between reservoirs and water scarcity and to hypothesize long‐term phenomena such as water scarcity. Neglecting these interactions could lead to biased research agendas, misleading conclusions, and adverse effects on the transformation process toward sustainability. Given the complexity of social–ecological systems, the diversity and critical capacity of inter‐ and transdisciplinary work is crucial to further advance the study of unintended side effects of reservoirs or — more general — the study of socio‐hydrology. This article is categorized under: Human Water
Diagram showing interactions of socio‐political elements within the supply–demand cycle. Light blue circle: supply–demand cycle and how the variables interact (blue arrows); Dark blue outer ring: socio‐political elements interacting with the supply–demand cycle (orange arrows). Green arrows: Options of dealing with water scarcity. The indicated numbers correspond to the subsections in Section 2. Letters are explained in the text in Section 2. Arrows indicate the direction of causality. Signs (“+” or “−”) at arrow heads indicate the polarity of relationships: “+” denotes that an increase in the independent variable causes the dependent variable to increase, ceteris paribus (and a decrease causes a decrease). The dotted arrow between water storage and water supply means that water storage in reservoirs does overall not increase water supply, it just shifts water from water rich to water scarce periods
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